Dewhurst vs Cruz: Are You Not Entertained?

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For a group that loves the Constitution, tea partiers are not super-good at following the rules.

Last night’s debate between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst, eight days before the Republican run-off for U.S. Senate, was supposed to be, in the words of Catherine Engelbrecht, “a safe zone.”

The debate featured no rebuttals, making it less a debate than an awkward, cranky tag-team speech, and organizers tried to make sure their constituents behaved better than, say, Neil Munro in the Rose Garden.

“We’re not going to applaud or make any outburst of any kind,” urged Engelbrecht, head of King Street Patriots, during her welcome speech. “We’re just going to participate like good, quiet citizens.”

Quiet participation is hardly this group’s M.O. This was a standing-room-only crowd in the cinderblock bunker of the King Street Patriots. The KSP are known for founding “True the Vote,” an effort that purports to fight voter fraud by sending poll watchers to majority black and Latino precincts. The crowd of more than 350 had waited in a snaking line in the clammy Houston afternoon to get a wristband for this freedom rave. As I entered, a woman in front of me asked an usher, “Which side is Cruz?” as if attending a football game. This group had come for a fight.

They got one, sort of, despite Engelbrecht’s pleas.

The short version is this: Cruz graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School for crying out loud. The man can talk. Everything he said sounded as slick and confident as the voice over for a political ad. He rarely got cut off by the 90-second time limit. He hit his talking points and got in his digs at Dewhurst like he was checking off a list. When Dewhurst spoke, Cruz gazed up at him with those serene, sympathetic eyes and a little smirk that said, “Coffee’s for closers.”

Dewhurst doddered. If you could get past the fact that he paused every time he said “Medi…caid” or “Medi….care” as if trying to remember which was which, and got a little lost in the middle of sentences, and often didn’t answer the actual question, you could hear that Dewhurst had actually done the very things that his interrogators wanted to know if he would do—slash budgets, disempower Democrats, support the transvaginal probe industry, etc.

It was never an even playing field. The debate began late, and Dewhurst walked quietly from the back of the room to his podium. As a crewmember started affixing his microphone, the crowd noticed him and applauded politely. Thus they were primed for their man Ted, who strode up from behind and hadn’t even gotten to the stage before the crowd was on their feet, cheering and applauding.

In substance, their responses to the audience-and-social-media-generated questions, which all boiled down to asking who was more conservative, were nearly the same. What parts of Obamacare would you keep? Not a tittle. How would you make Texas more business-friendly? Deregulate. And so forth.

Cruz was first, and ultimately the only, to attack directly, bringing up that in the last debate, Dewhurst had made the unfortunately fact-based observation that America’s health care outcomes are not always the best in the world. Cruz reiterated that Dewhurst’s data came from “left-wing studies” (like the World Health Organization) and opined, “I don’t think it’s the role of government to be micromanaging the outcomes” of health care in the U.S.

The fidgety crowd made it almost half an hour before someone yelled, “Liar!” at Cruz, who was describing how Dewhurst had allegedly given a speech advocating “amnesty,” then had the speech removed from his website during the campaign. The moderator, the unfathomably lovely Melinda Spaulding, an anchor for Houston’s Fox affiliate, reminded the crowd to be cool.

Cruz managed to attack Dewhurst fiercely and directly for negative campaigning—at one point pivoting toward him at their awkwardly close side-by-side podiums and asking if he stands by his assaults on Cruz’s patriotism—while making the case that he, Cruz, had stayed issues-based. It was a neat trick.

When Dewhurst said that Cruz had been running not for Senate but against him, an audience member shouted, “It’s not true!” Spaulding again urged “no outbursts,” and then someone started to applaud in support, apparently not understanding what an outburst is.

Not content to leave the naughtiness to the audience, Cruz interrupted Dewhurst three times. The most damaging was in response to a question about gun control (specifically, do we need more? answer: nope) when Cruz listed his endorsements and Dewhurst said, “I’m endorsed by the NRA.”

Cruz, with creepy, lawyerly pleasure, turned and said, “The NRA has not endorsed you.”

“What?” said Dewhurst, startled.

“The NRA has not endorsed you.”

“I stand corrected,” Dewhurst said, on a dime. “You’re absolutely right. The people…” He trailed off. “The local people have…”

This is what the local people had come to see: Cruz, young and snotty, calling out the establishment. Cruz quoted the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. Cruz was Fifty Shades of Jefferson. Dewhurst just kept pointing to his record, unsure why this was not enough.

Dewhurst finally got in a good one during his closing statement. “If Texas were as bad as my opponent keeps saying in these ads,” Dewhurst said, “Texas would look like California. Texas is a good state. I’m proud of Texas.”

But it might have been too late. As the crowd filed out, the women behind me giggled with glee. “When that guy shouted ‘Liar!,’” one told her friend, “that was the best part.”

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.